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We often ask for, and I often hear, reasons why someone has ‘made it’ in cycling and someone else hasn't. A lot of the time these questions are left unanswered or are attributed to things like: he didn't have the hunger, he was burnt out, he didn't like leaving home etc. Often it can be a combination of all of these. But, these answers don’t really help us when we try to figure out why a rider develops from a promising junior to a professional in Europe. So, what are the essentials?
A recent conversation with our highly experienced and knowledgeable Physiologist, Dr David Bailey, made me think more about this, helping me to understand why some grow within the sport and some remain static. Dave talked about 3 essential ingredients to progress in the sport, which are:
With these 3 ingredients in mind, I started to look at the many riders I've known, lived with and ridden alongside as team mates. For people who have never lived a full time athlete lifestyle or experienced the willingness to sacrifice everything to progress in the sport, it is very hard to understand these values or to make a judgement, as the experience has so many variables to take into consideration.
So, what do I think of Dave’s theory? Well, I think he has covered a lot of the factors required to develop in the sport and areas that young aspiring riders should look at within themselves when being self critical.
Natural talent is something we are born with. It is attributed to genetics and, unfortunately, there is little you can do about this. That's not to say that, without natural talent, you will not develop to the top rung of the sport. In fact, from my experience, the majority of riders with natural talent do not make it, nor do they develop to their full potential. This is normally due to having things too easy from an early age and never having to work hard on their abilities. This leads them into a false sense of security in that, when times are hard or they are pushed to develop, a given rider can 'crack'. Conversely, the rider who fights to gain recognition at every step of the ladder will know no different and continues to work and struggle to compete and succeed. So, natural talent is a gift that you must cherish and not take for granted.
Psychology is something we can all witness in our reactions to different scenarios in life and sport. It is this area that can cause the talented athlete to ‘crack’ when the going gets tough. It is also the reason a less talented rider will keep pursuing a goal or dream. The life of a cyclist is exactly what it says - A LIFE. It's not just a sport that you take up in the evenings or train for a couple of hours a day. Where natural talent is only visible for those 3-4 hrs that an athlete is on the bike training or racing, psychology is visible 24/7 by those around the person.
A major area when it comes to noticing true 'talent' is seeing how someone reacts to changes in lifestyle and their willingness to dedicate all aspects of their personal life and ability to turn this into a success. Again, this psychology is normally not trained at a young age. A lot of it is down to their life experiences, mental readiness drawn from parents/teachers/coaches/carers and how they saw their peers and surrounding support network deal with life.
Anyone who has witnessed the professional peloton over the last 20 years will notice the number of Eastern European and, more recently, South American riders coming to the fore in the sport. This is mostly due to them over-coming adversity to reach their goal, again coming down to how they handle situations and their willingness to dedicate their lives to the sport. This psychology is not something the rider/athlete is magically born with; it is due to their developing perception of how the world works and their understanding of what is needed to make these steps. This would have been instilled in them from a young age by mentors, family, coaches, teachers etc. and this cognitive ability remains with them throughout their cycling career. Psychology is one of the major areas that has been overlooked, and often ignored, in recent years. This is the area we should be working on with the new generation and making steps to further develop. Psychological theorists would agree with the difference this will make to helping riders succeed and this is a school of thought that should be given further credit and recognition.
So, lastly, it is the funding part. This can take many forms and originate from many different sources, but any investment is for the same goal - a rider’s progression with the finances to aid all essential areas. This is, of course, a very grey area and an often controversial topic that has caused many headaches over the years (including my own head!), but when done properly, it is an extremely powerful tool that will help propel a rider into the professional spectrum of dedication to the sport with expert knowledge.
I am sure there are many people reading this thinking of the riders they know who have achieved the top tier of the sport without any funding, and I have also known many of these riders personally. The majority of these people have extremely strong willpower and are very head strong (down to their internal psychology, as mentioned above), but these types of people are harder and harder to come by. This is where funding can help soften the blow of external stresses outside of riding the bike, bringing the athlete to a realm of experts who can aid them and into a team structure that will put them into races that will help them learn, develop and achieve results. This all depends on the funding being in the right area and being used with the rider’s interests at heart. Unfortunately, this is so often not the case. So, with a tailored support structure in place to direct funding to the most appropriate areas for developing the cyclist's strengths, this will help soften the blow of professional cycling and increase the chances of a successful career.
In conclusion, I believe the three areas considered above are definitely part of the equation for success. They all have great importance in moving someone from amateur ranks to the professional division and, without consideration of each of the areas, the equation falls apart. For some cyclists I have known over the years, I can recognise where one of the three components has not been given the recognition it deserves and their longevity within the sport has quickly diminished.
Cycling is not a job. It is not a career. It is a lifestyle choice and, as such, it demands complete and thorough consideration of the components needed to make it work.